We are all familiar, at least to some extent, with Grasp the Bird’s Tail at the beginning of the Yang 108. Ward Off, Roll Back, Press, and Push – indeed, it sometimes feels like one could do it even in the sleep! These are the first four of the 13 energies (gates or postures) listed in Taiji Classics and taught by generations of taiji instructors, mostly with reference to Yang 108 and other taiji hand forms. What often passes unnoticed though is that the same number of energies, or techniques, is also widely used in straight sword practice. Moreover, the sword energies are often seen as similar to the 13 energies used in hand forms.
One of Chinese texts pointing to these similarities is the Wudang sword manual authored by Huang Yuan-xiou, a student of renowned Chinese swordsman General Li Jing-lin (see bibliography at the end of the post). This manual was published in China in 1930 and later translated into English. It offers a list of 13 sword techniques parallel to the 13 gates of taijiquan. Similar lists -- some of them originating in the Wudang tradition -- have been used by many other masters. The detailed descriptions of the energies or the order of discussion may vary; yet, in many cases these descriptions show a remarkable consistency.
Below, I will discuss some of the most common sword techniques, using Huang’s, Olson’s, Rodell’s, and Zhang’s sword manuals as the point of departure. Where possible, I will describe their connection to the 13 gates in hand forms. Most examples will come from Yang 54 and Five Section Two-Person Sword created by Sam Masich. These two forms are widely practiced at CMIA.
Sword practice at CMIA
The same or similar energies though can be found in Sword 16, Sword 32, as well as in Chen and Wudang Taiji forms, all of them also practiced at our club.
A word of caution: one has to keep in mind that the form movements, on the one hand, and the energies or techniques, on the other, do not have one-to-one correspondence. The same movement can be performed with different energies, depending on the situation and your partner’s or your own intent. And, of course, sword forms use many more than just 13 techniques. But these 13 are quite widespread. Knowing them gives one a better understanding of the form movements as well as a greater inspiration in drills and free play.
I will start with Draw and Carry which often appear at the top of the list in Huang’s, Olson’s, and Rodell’s sword manuals. Using these soft and smooth energies is sometimes compared, tongue in cheek, to spreading butter on a fresh bun. Well... if so, even more reasons to see them as the bread-and-butter sword techniques.
Draw is one of the English words for Chou (Chinese, pinyin). Others are Draw-Across, Withdraw, Whip, Lash, or Slash. This technique is often compared to Ward Off (Peng) in hand forms. Both are characterized by an expanding energy which adheres to the incoming energy and effortlessly bounces it back. Soft and powerful, Ward Off and Draw should feel, as Nick Gracenin put it, like the prow of a ship pushing water out of the way.
In sword manuals, Draw is usually described as pulling the blade across. This pulling motion is important because of the geometry of straight sword. While curved sword or sabre has a slightly curved blade that can be simply pushed forward in order to cut, it would be useless to try to do the same with a straight blade. Straight sword has to be drawn, or pulled across. The initial touch, writes Zhang, should be light while the cut itself should be done with agility and speed.
This technique uses the top and medium portions of the blade, the sharpest ones in the olden days when sword was used as a weapon. It can be performed both on a horizontal plane and at an angle. The palm is usually down, as in this photo, but this doesn’t have to be always the case.
Image credit: Rene Navarro, Tai Chi Sword and the Cop
A good example is Block and Sweep Right at the beginning of Yang 54 (Rodell offers a slightly different interpretation of this movement). Other examples are Black Dragon Waves Its Tail, Right and Left Wheeling Sword, and Wind Sweeps the Plum Blossom at the very end of the form.
Draw is also widely used in Five Section Two Person Sword. Partner B, for instance, uses this technique against partner A in a movement called Running Cuts (the second cut) and in Slash with Sword (right after Bumping Parry). Later on, B uses it again twice, low and high, in the movements called Cut After.
Carry, the second energy on the list, is a translation of the Chinese term Dai. It is often seen as a sword counterpart of Roll Back (Lu) in hand forms. Roll Back is a receiving, collecting energy – and so is Carry. Both follow an important taiji principle mentioned in Taiji Classics: borrowing the force from the opponent. In the case of Carry the idea is to stick to the incoming sword, leading the partner into an off-balance position, while also targeting his/her wrist.
Carry is typically done with the palm up, as in photo below. It should feel, writes Ju-Rong Wang, like pulling a shower curtain to the left with your right hand. According to Steve Higgins and Sam Masich though, the palm position in this technique is not cast in stone; other positions can be also used. And, as with Draw, Carry can be done both horizontally and on an angle.
Image credit: Xinhuanet
In the 54, Carry can be found in several movements. Swallow Skims the Water is probably the best example. However, other movements can be also imbued with this energy. It can be used in Embrace Moon to Bosom (Olson), Follow Water Push the Boat (Masich), Rhino Looks at the Moon (Gracenin), and Straddle and Block (Higgins).
Draw and Carry are not always seen as two separate techniques. Yang Jwing-Ming, for example, sees them as one technique that can be called either Chou or Dai in Chinese (Draw Back or Pull in English). In this view -- and many would probably agree with it -- the position of the palm does not really matter. What matters is the drawing, pulling nature of the energy.
Curiously, even those who -- like Huang, Rodell, Olson, and Zhang -- see Draw and Carry as two separate techniques, are not always explicit with regard to the position of the palm. Moreover, they agree that these two energies are closely related.
Twin energies... Draw and Carry may appear in sword forms on their own but, like twins, they like showing up together. Draw is often followed by Carry, and Carry is followed by Draw. Several movements in the 54 employ a combination of these two energies (or, some would say, one energy in its two manifestations). Among them are Falling Flowers, Parting the Grass in Search of Snake, and Lion Shakes Its Head. In all these movements, it is important to make the cut as long and smooth as possible, changing lightly the position of the blade, and relying on internal energy rather than brute force. It is also advisable to keep the tip of the sword close to the centre line; the idea is to keep your partner at bay while maximizing opportunities for your advance.
So far, I have been using examples from Yang Style. But Draw and Carry can be also found with or without variations in other styles and forms, including Sword 32, Chen 48, and Wudang Taiji forms taught by Ron Williamson. In Wudang Taiji, for instance, Draw and Carry can be used either as described above or with sword in a reverse position, i.e., with the hilt moving diagonally downwards and the tip pointing up. This technique can be used in a single movement, but it can also appear as a short sequence of motions similar to Falling Flowers.
Often used in sword forms, the combination of Draw and Carry makes a good drill. It can be practiced horizontally and at different angles, solo and with a partner. It can be done either stationary or with stepping. All in all, it’s is a good way to hone one’s sword skills!
The two energies examined so far can be seen as both the offensive and defensive techniques. On the list of the 13 sword energies they are often followed by Lift and Block. These two are essentially defensive techniques which are compared -- somewhat paradoxically, at least at first glance -- to Press (Ji) and Push (An) in hand forms. The energies of Lift and Block will be discussed next.
Garofalo, Michael. Thirteen Postures of Taijiquan, http://www.egreenway.com/taichichuan/powers13.htm
Gracenin, Nick. 13 Energies of Wudang Taji Sword (DVD). Wushu Publishing, 2010.
Higgins, Steve. Taijijian: A Cold Mountain Internal Arts Notebook, 2015.
Huang, Yuan-xiou. The Major Methods of Wudang Sword. Blue Snake Books, 2010.
Masich, Sam. Traditional Yang Style Taijiquan 54 (DVD). Little Productions, 2005.
__________. 5 Section Taijiquan, vol.2, Two Person Sword Form (DVD). Little Productions, 2005.
__________. Yang Style Taiji 13 Sword (Jian), Workshop on Taijijian Core Principles, Milton, Ontario, May 13-14, 2006.
Olson, Stuart. Tai Chi Thirteen Sword: A Sword Master’s Manual. Multi-Media Books, 1999.
Rodell, Scott. Chinese Swordsmanship: The Yang Family Taiji Jian Tradition. Seven Stars Trading, 2005.
T’ai Chi Classics. http://www.pdfdrive.com/tai-chi-classics-e10950541.html (among other editions)
Wang, Ju-Rong and Wu, Wen-Ching. Sword Imperatives: Mastering the Kung Fu and Tai Chi Sword. The Way of the Dragon Publishing, 2006.
Yang, Jwing-Ming. Taiji Sword, Classical Yang Style. YMAA, 1998.
Zhang, Yun. The Art of Chinese Swordsmanship. Weatherhill, 1998.
Upcoming: The Two-person Sword Experience.